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U.S. journalist exploring Islamic extremism shot to death in Basra

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An American journalist who'd been examining the rise of Islamic extremism in southern Iraq was found shot to death in the port city of Basra, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Wednesday. Steven Vincent, a freelance reporter from New York, was shot several times and his body, bound by plastic ties, was dumped on a downtown street after midnight, Basra police Lt. Asaad Jassib said.

It was unclear whether the killing was directly connected to Vincent's work, which was highly critical of the increasing Islamic influence in Basra.

Vincent's Iraqi translator, Nouriya Sayhoud al-Khal, was seized with him and was shot at least twice in the chest and leg, al-Khal's sister said in a phone interview. Al-Khal was transferred to a Baghdad hospital, where she was listed in serious condition.

Masked gunmen in an Iraqi police vehicle abducted Vincent and al-Khal as they left a money exchange kiosk at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Basra authorities said. Vincent was the first American reporter to be killed in such an attack since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, though several Americans have died in other circumstances. At least 65 Iraqi and foreign news workers have been killed in Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The attack, which followed a roadside bombing last week that killed two British security contractors, has shattered Basra's image as a haven from the insurgent violence that disrupts life in many other areas of Iraq. The British-controlled Basra long has been considered one of the most stable of Iraq's 18 provinces, though residents now are struggling with the spread of religious extremism, the resurgence of Shiite Muslim militias and rampant smuggling along the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.

Last week, Vincent published an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he quoted others accusing Shiite police officers in Basra of revenge killings of members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party, which brutally oppressed Shiites for decades. Vincent also criticized the British military for allowing Islamists to control the city. He told other reporters in Basra that he was too frightened to name any of the Islamic militias—such as that of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—in his reports.

Kinaan al-Musawi, a spokesman at al-Sadr's office in Basra, said the cleric's Mahdi Army militia played no role in Vincent's slaying. He said al-Sadr had made it clear to his followers that journalists weren't to be considered targets, even if they wrote critically of his movement.

"The responsible parties for this killing are, directly, the Salafist (radical jihadist) movement and, indirectly, the occupying U.S. forces and the weak Iraqi government, which has failed to provide security to any city in Iraq," al-Musawi said. "Even if that journalist wrote a negative article about us, we are not angry because we have confidence in our movement, plus supporters all over the world."

Vincent told other reporters visiting Basra that he'd lived in the city for two months and was writing a book about local history. Unlike most Western correspondents in Iraq, Vincent traveled without bodyguards, and he and his translator frequently took taxis to interviews. During dinner conversations with other foreign journalists at the Merbid Hotel, where he lived, he was outspoken in his views that the conservative Islam that was sweeping through southern Iraq curtailed the rights of women.

Mehdi Abdul Karim, a Mirbed Hotel receptionist who'd befriended Vincent, said, "All he wanted to do was write a book." The Iraqi said he was impressed by the journalist's trips to visit local tribes and explore the famous southern marshes. Karim described Vincent as well liked and willing to make calls to humanitarian groups to help Iraqi families he'd gotten to know.

But the opinion piece last week, Karim said, imperiled the reporter.

"He wrote an article about radicalism in Basra and how security has been left in the hands of the militias," Karim said. "This led to his death. He paid with his life for that article."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.